Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to Israel this week after his much-anticipated first meeting with President Obama. As predicted, the two discussed Iran and Obama squeezed Bibi on the settlements and the premier’s elusive acceptance of the “two-state” phrase. If Obama is serious about engaging in the Middle East peace process, however, he must shift his focus to the real problem: Israel’s quickly disintegrating peace partner.
The Palestinians may be farther away from statehood today than ever before. After reconciliation talks between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ west bank government and Hamas’ Gaza government broke down again, Abbas tasked Prime Minister Salam Fayad earlier this week with forming a new government. Hamas, of course, has voiced its intent to boycott the government. In a surprising move, Abbas’ own Fatah party has decided to remove itself from the government as well, claiming the party’s old guard had been passed over for top spots in favor of Fayed’s independent third party. Both Hamas and Fatah have made threats against the government and Abbas, including that of a new intifada.
Abbas, meanwhile, is clinging to his presidency through legal loopholes, even though it officially ended in January. Opinion polls in the west bank show that if elections were held today, Hamas would win a solid majority and take control of the Palestinian Authority.
Clearly, the P.A. is crumbling despite (not necessarily the best) efforts of the United States, Europe, and Israel to prop it up. Security training, monetary gifts, and large prisoner releases have failed to shore up support for the struggling government, despite how much better off the Palestinians of the west bank are compared to their brethren in Gaza.
For several years now the thinking has been that with all its flaws, a Fatah-led P.A. is a better negotiating partner than Hamas. We may not soon have that choice as the Palestinian people, long the pawns of other Arab governments, may soon demand that their voices be heard in the west bank and overthrow the failing Fatah government.
We certainly do not advocate negotiating with Hamas while it remains dedicated to Israel’s destruction. It may, however, be time for a fresh start.